News Column

The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn., John Beifuss column

December 5, 2013


Dec. 05--How do you make zombies fresh?

That's not the setup for a punch line or an epidemiological dilemma. It's the question that confronted Memphis filmmakers G.B. Shannon and Edward Valibus during this summer's production of "Songs in the Key of Death," a short comedy inspired by that most-chewed-over pop-culture trope of the new millennium, the zombie apocalypse.

The 12-minute film begins as a clever spoof of the zombie genre before taking an unexpected left turn into the type of science-fiction satire that has become a Valibus signature. (See also "Genesis on Demand," a short that attributes the flaws of humankind to the compromised "design by committee" planning of the Dilbertesque cosmic engineers in charge of the universe.) Goofy and occasionally gory, "Songs in the Key of Death" maintains just about perfect comic pitch, which is appropriate since the premise involves undead piano tuners. "We keep them out back in refrigerated units," explains zombie-exploiting entrepreneur FJ Ackerman, played by local actor Billie Worley.

Following its debut last month during the Indie Memphis Film Festival, "Songs in the Key of Death" returns next week as the centerpiece selection in a one-night-only anthology dubbed "Memphis Fried Movie," an 80-minute showcase of the best of a half-decade's worth of work by Shannon and the Corduroy Wednesday Film Company, a collective that includes writer-director Valibus, director of photography Erik Morrison and producer-sound designer Benjamin Rednour.

"Not everybody has seen our body of work," Valibus acknowledges.

"They should expect to see some really funny stuff," Shannon said.

"Memphis Fried Movie" screenings are at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Thursday at the Malco Studio on the Square. Admission is on a pay-what-you-want basis, with proceeds going to help cover the costs of submitting "Songs in the Key of Death" to film festivals around the world. Posters for the film created by artist Lauren Rae Holtermann will be on sale.

Named in homage to "Kentucky Fried Movie," an irreverent 1977 skit film directed by John Landis ("Catholic High School Girls in Trouble" remains the most infamous segment), the "Memphis Fried Movie" showcase will include a few music videos and brief comedy sketches in addition to seven short films, most of which earned awards at Memphis film festivals.

The lineup includes "Songs in the Key of Death," directed by Valibus and written by Valibus and Shannon; "Genesis on Demand" (2009), which stars deadpan Memphis treasure Ben Siler as a low-level office bureaucrat in a company that might be called God Inc.; Corduroy Wednesday's "CottonBallLand" (2009) in which a quaint old lady (Helen Bowman) offers an unusual history lesson about Memphis (characters include Andrew Jackson, John Overton and Prince Mongo); the semi-dramatic "Woke Up Ugly" (2009), written by Shannon and directed by Ryan Parker, in which a man awakens with a new face; Corduroy Wednesday's "Confessions of a Pedalphile" (2011), a bicycling comedy that has screened all over the world (it played last month at Interfilm Berlin, Germany's International Short Film Festival); Corduroy Wednesday's "Bohater Pies" (2009), described as "a Polish remake of the beloved American hero dog movies of yore"; and Shannon's "Que Sera, Sivad" (2010), in which aliens create a clone of Sivad, the "monster of ceremonies" host of the defunct Memphis horror-movie program of the 1960s and '70s, "Fantastic Features."

The 6-foot-5 Shannon, 45, who works as a video editor at the Beale Street Studios production house, and the less towering Valibus, 34, a freelance filmmaker who drops his birth surname, Phillips, from his professional credits, conceived "Songs in the Key of Death" during one of their regular "Script Bucket" meetings, social gatherings that bring together like-minded filmmaking friends to pitch story ideas.

Said Shannon: "I thought, 'What could zombies be used to do?' Unfortunately the first thing my brain went to was sex, because I think there would be a zombie sex trade, but I was trying to think of something more innocent. And I thought, 'What if it was something you wouldn't expect a zombie to do?'" In other words, what if perfect pitch was a surprise attribute of the zombies' undead moaning, and they could be used as an absurd aid for piano tuners and other musicians?

Valibus contributed the "apocalyptic aspect" of the story, Shannon said, and the idea of "the American dream being on trial" -- almost literally, in a final scene involving a sort of military tribunal.

Shannon and Corduroy Wednesday plan to collaborate soon on a feature -- a film they hope will gain more than local attention, and stand out from most other Memphis movies in its boldness, thematic and otherwise. ("Songs in the Key of Death" contains a head explosion that's fairly startling for a Memphis-made film.)

"Safe is incredibly boring to me, and I have no interest in doing a film that is 'pleasant,'" Shannon said. "I want to do a film that interests me, and if it interests me, I think it will interest moviegoers."

'Memphis Fried Movie'

An Evening of Comedy Films by G.B. Shannon and Corduroy Wednesday

7 and 9 p.m. Thursday, Malco Studio on the Square, 2105 Court.

Admission by pay-what-you-want donation.

For more information, visit


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